Petroushka\’s Miscellany

On wobbegong sharks etc.

Of all the sharks and rays that swim in the oceans, star in horror films, and murder innocent crocodile hunters, the wobbegongs have the most interesting name. [A brief aside: it turns out that sharks and rays are the same kind of animal: they’re all elasmobranchs. But since sharks have a real – albeit highly exaggerated – habit of chewing on humans, we know much more about sharks than about rays.]

The word “woebegone”, says Michael Quinion, has its origins in medieval English. It comes from an expression first recorded around 1300: “me is woe begone”, which he says means “grief has beset me”. Begone is the past participle of the verb to bego, which, until it died a quiet death four centuries ago, meant to go around, surround or beset. It seems that medieval humans liked the expression “me is woe begone” so much that eventually, through constant use, the words stuck together into the adjective we know and love today: woebegone. Shakespeare, of course, had a hand in changing the meaning a tiny bit from actually being afflicted by grief to having the appearance thereof. (He also invented the name Olivia, but that is another story for another time.)

Lake Wobegon, “where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average”, has also changed the English language. It brought us the Lake Wobegon effect: the tendency to treat all members of a group as above average, as in, It’s a moderation of the so-called Lake Woebegon effect, where every company’s board wants to consider their CEO to be above average.

And while Lake Wobegon itself appears to be a fictional place, it also appears that Minnesotans don’t mind using it to promote real camps on real lakes, such as Camp Courage, whose sessions include Sickle Cell and Siblings Camp, Hemophilia Camp, Cancer Camp and Augmentative Communication Camp. I’m sure they provide a much-needed service for kids who would otherwise not get to spend the summer covered in mosquito bites, poison ivy and various unidentifiable rashes. But I don’t think I’d want to be the one who, when asked where I spent the summer, had to answer “Augmentative Communication Camp”.

Now, if you will take a look at the Ornate Wobbegong (Orectolobus ornatus), you will no doubt agree that he does look forlorn, despite being so well camouflaged. The Ornate Wobbegong lives in Australian coastal waters and around Papua New Guinea.

ornate wobbegong

His cousin, the Spotted Wobbegong (O. maculatus), also lives in the shallow coastal waters of Australia from Queensland to Western Australia.

spotted wobbegong

Spotted and Ornate Wobbegongs can be told apart by their colouring: small white dots vs. dark spots. Both like to lie on sand or rocky ocean floors and be cryptic (i.e. well camouflaged). They are sometimes called carpet sharks. They can grow up to 3m and have very sharp teeth, M. McGrouther so try not to step on them, or provoke them, or block their escape routes. Apparently they are flexible enough to swivel around and bite you if you grab their tail, so don’t. Particularly since they seem disinclined to let go once they have bitten you. At least, this was the experience of a man who, after being bitten by a wobbegong, swam to shore, walked to his car and drove to get help with the shark still attached to his leg. Wobbegongs eat at night, mainly fishes, crayfish, crabs and octopi. Yum. Australians also eat wobbegongs – as fish & chips. Those crazy Australians.

Wobbegong, sadly, bears no relation to woebegone. Michael Quinion tells us that it comes from a New South Wales Aboriginal language and no one seems to have any idea what it actually means. But you can still watch the Ornate Wobbegong in action.

What else is in a name? Orectolobus comes from Greek: orectus, which means stretched out, and lobos, meaning a protuberance (like the ones on the head of the wobbegong shark). Maculatus comes from the Latin macula, which means spot. Ornatus means splendid dress, and turns out to be a common species name. Examples include:

the golden julie (Julidochromis ornatus);

golden julie

the spectacled bear (Tremarctos ornatus): the only bear that lives in South America, including darkest Peru, and the prototype for Paddington;

Photo © The Phoenix Zoo

the tree lizard (Urosaurus ornatus);

tree lizard
Photo © Wikipedia

and the rainbow bee-eater

Photo © Wikipedia
Sharp Teeth Photo © M. McGrouther


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  1. * Al-Zarwani says:

    Thanks for this, Petroushka. They etymology of woebegone and the pictures are fantastic. But I’ll bet you LE5 in singles that Wobbegong is derived from an aboriginal word…

    Posted 11 years, 8 months ago
  2. Hi Petroushka,

    It’s generally good form to ask the photographer if you can use his/her images. I run the Australian Museum fish site – the site from which three of the above images were borrowed. I don’t believe that you asked A. Lumnitzer, I. Shaw, or me (photographer of the jaws) if you could use the images on your site. In future, it would be polite to ask :).
    If you would be so kind as to add a link to the Australian Museum fish site pages from which the images were copied and also a link to the photographers page for Lumnitzer and Shaw on the Australian Museum website, I would be grateful.

    Mark McGrouther
    Fish Collection Manager
    Australian Museum

    Posted 11 years, 8 months ago
  3. * petroushka says:

    My sincere apologies, Mr. MgGrouther. You are absolutely right, and although I’m new to blogging I am aware of copyright so there is no excuse for my appropriation of the photos for this post. I did mean to put links to the Australian Museum, which I think is an amazing resource and one of the reasons I chose to write on wobbegong sharks in particular. Thank you for reminding me that I didn’t put them in. They are there now, in the text and in the pictures. And thank you for putting together such a great website with so many fabulous fish facts and photos.

    Posted 11 years, 8 months ago
  4. bench jacke herren
    good post, wonderful page theme, keep up the great work

    Posted 6 years, 4 months ago

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